Nearly everyone in the developed world spends at least some time each day looking at a screen — whether a TV, computer, phone, tablet or gaming system. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. However, when used excessively, media can displace many important activities such as family time, outdoor play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.
In a world where children are growing up as "digital natives," it is important to help them learn healthy concepts of digital use. Parents play an important role in teaching these skills.
"While some screen time is unavoidable — like for school assignments or work — as a society we are spending more and more of our downtime looking at screens, often at the expense of face-to-face interactions," says Dr. William Brock, a psychologist with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "Particularly with children, excessive screen time has a negative impact on social-emotional and language development, behavior and executive functioning — the skills we use to reach our goals."
To help combat these negative effects and to build good screen time habits, Dr. Brock offers these six tips:
1. Set consistent rules about how much screen time is allowed, as well as when and where.Keep TVs and devices out of bedrooms, and turn off TVs when no one is watching. Set screen-free zones (such as not at the dinner table), screen-free times (such as not during family game night) and device curfews.
To solidify these guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends creating a family media plan. Parents and children can use the plan to customize guidelines on screen time, ensuring that media use is in line with their family's values. This personalized plan also helps children establish a healthy relationship with media.
2. Don't use screen time as a "digital pacifier."Avoid using screen time as a reward or taking it away as punishment, and do not use it to calm a child. Media can be very effective in keeping kids calm and quiet, but it should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, and calm down through breathing.
3. Choose the "right" media for your child and watch it with them.Co-viewing allows you to be involved in screen time by monitoring what your child watches, how long they watch for and how to apply what they learn to their surroundings. Young children learn best when they are re-taught in the real world what they just learned on a screen.
Engaging in back-and-forth "talk time" is critical for language and social development. Research shows that back-and-forth conversation improves language skills much more so than passive listening or one-way interaction with a screen. If Ernie from Sesame Street just taught the letter D, you can reiterate this later when you are having dinner or spending time with your child.
4. Provide your children with activities to do in and outside of the home.Include your child in the conversation and ask what they would like to do instead of screen time. If indoors, encourage activities such as reading, drawing and creative play. Rearranging the furniture in the family room can help promote interactive play and avoid making TV the focus. Setting aside a family game night or screen-free day for family excursions are great ways to bond and connect. To keep kids occupied on the go, make handy and portable activity bins with simple games such as matching cards, puzzles and blocks.
Planning activities outside of the home encourages exploration and social interaction while keeping kids away from technology distractions. Play dates, sports or dance teams, outdoor excursions, and library or museum trips are great options. For more activity ideas, visit:
5. Limit digital media for your youngest family members.The most critical period for child development is the first five years of life, when they are building the foundation for future learning and development. By limiting screen time and teaching appropriate screen habits now, you can help set the stage for success.
The AAP offers the following recommendations for media use with young children:
- For toddlers younger than 18 months: avoid digital media, other than video chatting.
- For toddlers ages 18 to 24 months: watch digital media with them because they learn from watching and talking with you.
- For children ages 2 to 5: limit screen use to just 1 hour a day of high-quality programming.
6. Be good digital role models and follow the same rules you set for your child.When children observe your screen time habits, they learn what is OK and what is not. To them, rules are rules and they may not understand if you are using a device for work or an errand. Set a good example and be consistent and fair. If grandparents or babysitters let your kids have the tablet too much, sit down with them and explain why you would like them to follow the screen time guidelines you have set for your family.
For more information and resources, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics and HealthyChildren.org.